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“Failures can teach you, what success can’t”: Namit Sharma

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From directing fiction shows at Cinevistaas to film production and script writing at Yash Raj and handling events and non-fiction properties at Wizcraft International Entertainment, he has done it all.

Namit Sharma, the programming head of Zee TV, has bought to the table years of expertise.

The channel, which is running strong at number three at the TAM TV ratings chart, currently, has explored new concepts this year. With Zee’s three shows not only being the slot leaders, but also in the top 10 fiction shows category, Sharma feels it is in a happy space to be in but believes that  there should always a hunger for more.

In his first interview, after taking charge at Zee TV, Sharma chats with indiantelevision.com’s Disha Shah in his office about challenges in churning out newer concepts and how to understand audiences’ likes and dislikes amongst other topics.

Excerpts...

It’s been almost nine months since you took charge as the programming head of Zee TV, how satisfied are you with the current positioning of the channel?

There are two answers to it.

The idea is to be happy with whatever you do because I think from a product and positioning point of view we have changed in the last nine months. We made a conscious shift about how we look and feel. There is certain uniformity in what we are doing and a certain sense of it coming together. The numbers have been good, so satisfied at that level. We are aligned with the legacy of Zee and yet evolving in a direction that we want to take the channel in.

But at the same time, we will always be dissatisfied because we are hungry for more.

From handling events to broadcast, did you face any challenges in the transition? Were you prepared for it?

When you come from a creative background, the easiest part is always about interacting with the industry and getting the best talent to work with you.

When you take charge or join a new team then there is always a lot of excitement and energy and people expect you to bring newer ideas to the table. At Zee, I have always been encouraged for bringing in fresh thinking. I am very happy the support I have received from the management and the team.

The challenge always is to try and get inside the consumers’ mind, create products for them and then wait for their reaction to understand what they like and don’t like. Then, after a few months again one has to figure out a way to surprise with with something new and exciting. It is a vicious cycle.

How difficult it is to churn out new concepts always? What kind of concepts you are looking out for?

With general entertainment channels (GECs) widening their scope and a number of GECs being launched, the challenge that all broadcasters will face henceforth is that now everybody will dip into the same research pool or try to align themselves to a very uniform way of working.

While, the uniform way of working is a good thing, one should never allow oneself to not think out-of-the-box. You work towards your TG, create content for them; you sort of know your audience but at the same time you should have the ability as a creative person to surprise yourself and them. There are some happy surprises and there are some not so happy surprises (laughs) and that’s roughly the unpredictability of what we do, that’s the challenge and excitement.

Yes, it’s difficult to find clutter-breaking ideas but we have this year we did manage to create some extraordinary concepts. We are now seen as a channel that has clutter-breaking ideas within the traditional format. The classic example is Jamai Raja, within the family drama fun, there is a prime-time daily soap with a male protagonist. KumKum Bhagya is another clutter breaker and Jodha Akbar has been a clutter breaker for over year and a half now. They are also slot leaders. Jodha Akbar and Jamai Raja are consistent slot leaders. KumKum Bhagya is a recent convert and we are hoping to stabilise it as a number one show at 9pm for a very long time with very interesting characters and unpredictable twists and turns in the story.

I am happy with the fact that Zee is now being identified as a platform, as a destination where you can consume the new traditional form of content and where shows are designed for the entire family and yet they provide newer twists, newer characters and clutter breaking ideas. Each show now comes with a new idea and that’s important to us.

For a very long time now, Zee has been stuck at number three in the ratings chart, according to you what went wrong and how do you plan to rectify it?

We sustained the number two position for a very long time; we will be back sooner than later. We don’t analyse this on a weekly basis because it is healthy to work in a scenario where everybody is active and fighting hard to keep their spot and aim higher. The greater satisfaction is not only in the numbers, but in the consumers’ appreciation and good feedback on a daily basis.

All shows don’t click so according to you, what kind of content works on television today?

If I knew that, I would have sealed a 20-year deal with Zee TV (laughs). I think there are some thumb rules that we all live by and within that thumb rules we try to find innovation and newness. Everybody talks about new launches, but the greater challenge as a programmer is on-going shows. Once the show is on-air and you have put behind the mad eight months of hard work into the launch and then everyone is scratching their heads saying what should we do next on this show to keep the momentum going. And that’s where the criticism comes in and then you are reacting, you are trying to clear your mind about how the story should go now, so these are bigger challenges.

Frankly, I love failures because failures can teach you what success can never teach you. Your successes teach you nothing. You just become worse as a person with every success because then you are like “I know everything”. As a creative and a television person, I have to start my day saying, “I don’t know anything”. Sometimes the audience will teach you, sometimes a writer who walks in will teach you something. Every day you can learn so much from different people.

Today, there is nobody in the world, who has 100 per cent track record of success, there is no creative person or network or programmer or broadcaster who has a 100 per cent success rate.

From mature markets in the US and UK to slightly less mature markets like us to under developed markets, be it film or television, you will always find that sometimes a product works and sometimes it doesn’t and that’s how the cookie crumbles.

We always fine tuned the formula a little bit and it is not linked to success but is about coming closer to the audience. For me, as a programmer, the most satisfying moment is when the consumer says “the product is really good”. Numbers is like cash, they come and go. When we meet our consumers, they tell us anything they don’t like about the show, that criticism is well accepted and when they tell us that they like something, that appreciation is also welcomed.

This year we saw a lot of new shows to the kitty, so what is your strategy in terms of programming? Have you been able to understand your audience and their liking and disliking?

This is going to be an on-going process for anybody who does this job. There is an audience which changes every day and we will change with the audience. This is an on-going process of understanding the consumer, trying to find the best concepts and trying to make that concept work. This is what we do in the business, seven days a week, be it as broadcasters or writers or producers. And that’s what we live for. That basic essence is never going to change, but yes, in the coming months you would see a certain alignment of the programming within itself. You will see certain kind of alignment in the content within the brand values and a certain coming together of the Fixed Point Chart (FPC) with very exciting new products.

You tried stand-up comedy through Bh Se Bhade, but didn’t really click with the audience, what new offering are you looking at for the audiences?

Yes, Bh se Bhade did not survive for very long. Then we had Gangs of Haseepur which ran for six weeks, some weeks did well, some weeks did not do well, fair point. And then we launched Neeli Chatri Waale, which is about 10 weeks old. It’s been delivering decent numbers. More than numbers on Neeli Chatri Wale, we feel pride because in it because it’s a show that is about hopes and aspirations of a middle class family. We are really proud of the show because it is something unique and has the good old formula of good storytelling, good characters, good humour, seek and moral built into every episode. So while it’s delivering in its slot, and is fairly delivering to what we had expected it to deliver but we always see the show from a very different filter. We always protect the show and make sure that we don’t touch the soul of the show.

How do you see competition coming from other channels?

Competition is an everyday part of our life. They are competition to us and we are competition to them. Nobody is resting, nobody is sleeping easy, and nobody has a peaceful existence (laughs). We are possibly on one of the hyper dynamic businesses ever. You really have to not love yourself to do this because everybody is firing salvoes from all different corners on an everyday basis and there is really no choice of waking up in the morning and fighting a new battle with a smile on your face and a hope in your heart.

On the non-fiction space, don’t you feel it’s time that Zee moves forward from the dance reality show regime and brings in freshness? Are you looking at reviving Sa Re Ga Ma Pa?

We are very sure that we don’t want to be different just for the sake of being different. If our consumers like something and if we do well, then we are happy to do it differently. It’s like saying, why is there a love story in a soap? People always question song, dance, and entertainment value of a non-fiction show. Similarly, why don’t one question relationships or love stories in a family drama? This is bread-butter, how do you package it, how aspirational, emotional and engaging we make it defines the success of that particular show.

Non-fiction is a bit like playing black jack. It’s very easy to risk something very big and it’s very easy to think that you can play safe and you can still lose. Unlike fiction in which you can go wrong and go then correct it within the show. Because non-fiction shows have a 13-week cycle, you can win big or lose big. That’s the risky part of doing it, but that’s also exciting because it allows you to innovate and experiment every 13 weeks.

At what intervals do you come up with the findings and how do you then change content on the channel?

Zee has a very robust system of talking to its consumers and allowing the consumers to talk to the channel. Be it through programs or postal addresses earlier and now e-mail id, we are in constant dialogues with our audience. Over and above that we also actively keep talking to the audience through various forums to understand what they like and don’t like.

Where do you Zee five years from now?

Zee is the only channel that for over two decades has been a part of India and its life. It is a very difficult track record to beat for anybody and any competition. I really hope that five years from now we continue to be in hearts of the audience because that is exactly where we want to be.

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